I am currently waging war in my backyard. My foe is tiny in comparison to me but knows how to inflict a painful bite when my feet get too close for their comfort. I am proactively searching out ant mounds, which are often cleverly hidden in an attempt to get rid of them. Ant poison isn’t an option as my dogs and desert tortoise, Aesop spends time out in the back garden. So, I need help, which is why I asked Emily of Gardening Wizards if she would share her tips for annihilating fire ants.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Have you ever felt the sting of a fire ant’s bite? I’d rank it as one of life’s most horrible yet somehow trivial surprises, alongside a mildly sprained ankle and spilling pickled beet juice onto your shirt. However, unlike those problems, fire ants can keep coming back like a bad rash if you don’t take the proper precautions and efficiently slaughter them like the pest they are.

The issue here is that most conventional bug sprays and pesticides aren’t exactly healthy for your plants, since they’re literally poison, only targetted at another species. Just like how humans would still have problems having to eat rat poison, you don’t really want to expose your garden to too much bug spray.

Luckily, there are a handful of convenient, garden-safe ways to get the job done, so put on some face paint and scream to whatever deity you worship, because we’re about to go to war. With a little DIY know-how, those ants don’t stand a chance. I’ll also give some tips on how to prevent fire ants from even showing up, which saves a lot of stress (and pain, let’s be real) without much effort.

Tried and True Methods

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Fire ants generally respond pretty poorly to having their mounds drenched in various liquids. Commercially sold pesticides are often spread across your whole lawn, but they’re both unhealthy and expensive. Invest the effort to find all the mounds so you can drown the menace in stuff you have at home, and the results will be better in the long run, especially if you grow vegetables.

Keep in mind that you may often encounter people claiming these methods aren’t perfect, and they’re not. If all you’re interested in is efficiency, pesticides are the way to go, but when you have kids, or you grow crops, it can be extremely unhealthy, not to mention more expensive. These methods cause next to no harm to your surroundings, especially with careful use.

The Fun Method – Baking Soda and Vinegar Volcano

Have you ever made one of these as a kid? It’s a fun way to get children interested in basic chemistry since it lets them replicate the fizzy effect they sometimes see in cartoons when scientists mix chemicals (they probably won’t get to see it much in class, if my chemistry experience is anything to go by).

If you can provide enough protective clothing (let your kids know that the best scientists always come prepared and they need to be up to the challenge), an effective way to clear out fire ants is to make that volcano erupt vinegar on top of the ant mound.

With some luck, the kid could also get to see the spectacle of ants being literally flushed out. Keep in mind that it’s the vinegar that kills the ants, not the baking soda, so try not to be wasteful. Also, prepare to smell vinegar for a while.

The Long Con – Dish Soap

If you’re feeling like some sadistic supervillain, you could also try dish soap. The reason this is particularly sinister is that it doesn’t directly kill the ants; instead, it eats away at their outer protective layer which causes them to dehydrate.

Another bonus effect is that unlike vinegar and a lot of pesticides, dish soap smells really nice, though make sure your pets or children don’t try to eat it. Mix it with water to be able to spray it on points of interest (usually the paths they take to enter your house) and laugh maniacally at their impending doom.

The Easiest Method – Hot Water

Good old hot water is surprisingly effective at murdering ants, though obviously, you should take care not to get any of it on you or splash it just everywhere. A lot of plants will not tolerate being accidentally tortured like a medieval criminal, so maybe other methods are more appropriate if the fire ant mounds are located near precious foliage. Water also has the advantage of being cheaper than any other method since it’s just water, and everyone has more than enough to spare.

The Trap – Cornmeal

Fire ants love cornmeal, and this makes no sense given how much cornmeal doesn’t like them. They will gladly try to eat it, but they can’t digest it. It’s silly, right? Cornmeal is also safe for most pets and definitely safe for children, so you don’t have to worry when you spread it anywhere.

Try not to only rely on cornmeal if you have a huge infestation on your hands, as it’s a pretty localized method, if you get what I mean. It’s not going to destroy a whole mound, but it will deal with entry points and healthy groups of ants in the near vicinity. It’s also not super-risky for surrounding plants like hot water or similar methods.

A Less Brutal Approach – Driving the Ants Away

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Sometimes you don’t need to slaughter every ant that has ever appeared on the face of the Earth. If spotted early enough, a fire ant incursion can be repelled using a few strategic baits and fear tactics. Some of these are less common in most households, but if you’re in a pacifist mood (for some reason), these are a good choice.

Strong Scents

If you sprinkle some, let’s say, cayenne pepper in high-traffic areas, it helps keep the ants away. Have you noticed a pattern emerging in most of these substances? Fire ants really dislike strong scents, as it messes up their communication and makes them unable to follow the invisible scent trail their scouts leave between the mound and a source of food. These peppers are also known as red hot chili peppers. Yes, like the band. And they’re used for chili powder, which has a powerful scent.

A helpful way to focus where you apply those strong smells is by using ant balls. No, that is not a gourmet dish served only to the richest people. It’s a name used for small cotton balls drenched in a special oil (or white vinegar, as a convenient alternative) that deter pests such as ants. Try not to leave puddles around, and keep them hidden from children. You should see at least a good decrease in how many ants you encounter.

Chalk

Chalk is another funky way to hide the scent trail from any fire ant invaders. A thick enough chalk line in the ground will often keep fire ants away, and this is another way to get your children involved. Tell them the chalk is magic and that drawing a thick line around the house/mound creates a force field that keeps bad guys at bay. It’s technically not wrong; you just sprinkled some fantasy on top of things! This works especially well when combined with other methods.

General Tips:

  • Don’t leave garbage hanging around for any extended period. Take out the trash regularly, as it attracts not only fire ants, but flies and other annoying bugs.
  • Try to keep your kitchen and bathroom free of puddles. Fire ants will seek out water just like any other critter, so you don’t want to give them more incentive to infiltrate your home.
  • The shorter the grass is around your house, the easier it becomes to spot signs of an infestation before it gets out of hand. You don’t want to be surprised by multiple mounds at the same time, especially if you’re walking around in flip-flops or something similar. You don’t need to salt the earth or anything to keep things safe, just mow the lawn regularly and you’ll be fine.
  • Avoid using things like gasoline to deal with ants, as you really want to avoid the risk of setting plants (and God knows what else) on fire. There is no need to use things that dangerous.
  • Try not to keep trash cans outdoors. Even if you empty them regularly, providing easier access to garbage only promotes fire ant infestation. Composting heaps can be problematic for a similar reason.
  • Don’t try to shovel away the mounds, or place them on top of one another. It could create a big mess, creating more work for you instead of helping.
  • If you get stung by fire ants (you’ll know if it happens, trust me), there are ways to treat the bite, but if you have an allergic reaction, call medical help immediately.

And there you have it! All of these things can be found in your home or through a quick trip to a DIY store of some kind, and they tend not to cost much.

Fire ants are probably the worst kind of pest you can encounter if you have kids or pets, so taking care of this problem puts you mostly in the clear.

After your next great harvest or once your flowers all bloom healthy, you will thank yourself for not resorting to risky pesticide solutions.

Let me know if any of these methods worked! I would love to hear your stories, as having more info is never a bad thing when facing an enemy like fire ants.

About the Author

I’m Emily from Gardeningwizards.com. After a ten year career as a journalist, I have moved on to share my passion for gardening. While getting out in the garden is one of my favorite hobbies, and helps me de-stress after a long day in the office, I often found myself frustrated at not getting the results I wanted from my plants. Through blogging, I have uncovered the answer to lots of common problems and now I want to share my knowledge with other horticulture enthusiasts.

My Abraham Darby shrub rose and my little dog, Tobey.
If you live in a hot arid climate like me, chances are that your roses are feeling the heat and aren’t looking their best right now. While gardeners in cooler climates celebrate summer with beautiful rose blooms, the opposite is true for those of us who live in the desert. 
 
Roses actually grow quite well in hot, southwestern zones, and even though mine has a somewhat sunburned appearance – I’m not worried because this is normal.
 
You see, roses that are grown in the low desert regions, don’t like the intense sun and heat that summer brings. As a result, the flowers become smaller and the petals literally burn in the sun and turn crispy.  By July, you will likely not see any new roses appearing until October once the weather cools.
 
The rose blooms themselves aren’t the only parts of the roses affected by the summer heat – the leaves can come away sunburned as well.
 
When faced with brown crispy petals and leaves, you may be tempted to prune away the damaged leaves, but don’t.  
 
There are two reasons why you shouldn’t prune your roses in the summer.  The first is that pruning will stimulate new growth that will be even more susceptible to sunburn damage.  Second, the older branches and leaves will help to shade the growth underneath from the sun.
 
I know that is very hard not to prune away the browning leaves, but once September comes around, you can get out your pruning shears and prune back your rose bushes by 1/3. This will remove the sun-damaged flowers and leaves, stimulating new growth. 
 
 
Before you start lamenting the less than stellar appearance of your summer roses and feel that it is easier to grow roses in other regions, you would be wrong. Oh, certainly we have to deal with our roses not looking their best in the summer.  But, compare that with gardeners in other areas who have to deal with the dreaded Japanese beetle that shows up every summer and eats their roses. Or, how about those people who live in more humid climates and are having to deal with severe cases of blackspot or powdery mildew (white spots on the leaves).  
 
And lastly – we are fortunate to enjoy two separate blooming seasons for our roses.  In fall, when many other gardeners are putting their roses to bed for the winter, ours are getting ready to bloom a second time that year.
 
 
And so, I will ignore my less than beautiful roses this summer, because I know that they will look fantastic this fall 🙂
 
How about you?  Do you grow roses in the desert?
 
 
 

Landscape No-No

Have you ever driven past a landscape that had some problems with it?  As a horticulturist and landscape consultant, my attention diverts whenever I see ‘Landscape No-No’s’ like this one.

I recently shared the photo of the landscape, above, on my Facebook page and invited people to identify three things wrong with the landscape.  I received a lot of comments including “looks like Versailles by the inept” and “shrubs arranged like funny looking ottomans spread across gravel.”  

It’s important to not that my reasons for showing examples like this aren’t to shame the homeowners. Instead, my goal is to help others to learn to identify problems and give them easy steps to correct or avoid them in the first place.

So, using this landscape as an example, let’s look at the problems and later, focus on how to solve them:

shrubs pruned the wrong way

1. Shrubs are planted too closely together.  

It’s obvious that there are too many plants in this area and the mature size of the shrubs wasn’t factored in the original design.  The types of flowering shrubs in this area – desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis),  Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), and ‘Green Cloud’ sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’) are good choices. The problem is that they are spaced too closely together and pruned the wrong way.

2. Lack of different plant types. 

As you can see, there is a tree, a couple of succulents (prickly pear cactus & yucca), and a LOT of shrubs.  However, the landscape suffers from an overabundance of shrubs.  

3. Incorrectly pruned flowering shrubs. 

These lovely, flowering shrubs have been turned into anonymous, green blobs, lacking in beauty and character.  In fact, you would have to look closely to be able to identify what each shrub is.  The problem has to do with what is missing from this landscape, which are attractive shrubs allowed to grow into their natural shapes, covered in colorful flowers.  Other problems associated with maintaining flowering shrubs this way is that it is stressful for the plant, shortens their lifespan, causes to them to use more water to regrow their leaves, and creates more maintenance.

Now that we have identified the problems, we can now look at the solutions.  I will use the landscape above as my example:

landscape-no-no-badly-pruned-shrubs

  • Remove excess shrubs.  Remove 24 of the existing 32 shrubs so that you are left with eight flowering shrubs.  To decide what shrubs to remove, learn what type of shrub they are and look up how large they are at maturity.  Then, make sure that the ones that remain have enough room to grow.  Shrubs should be places up near the house, to anchor the corners of the landscape, and flank an entry.

 

  • Severely prune back remaining shrubs.  One of the things I love about most shrubs is that they have a ‘restart button’ where much of the damage that has been done due to excessive pruning can be reversed.  Severe renewal pruning entails pruning back shrubs to approximately 1 1/2 feet tall and wide. You’ll have nothing left but woody branches and little to no leaves.  However, this stimulates plants to produce new, healthy growth. This type of pruning should be done in spring.  The key is to keep hedge trimmers away from your newly pruned shrubs forever.  Any pruning should be done using hand pruners, loppers, and pruning saws.  This will work with most shrubs except for a few that were in declining health.

Click here to see how to prune flowering shrubs correctly.

 

  • Incorporate lower-growing plants such as groundcovers and succulents.  A well-designed landscape has plants with varying heights, including those at ground level.  For the landscape above, I’d add a few boulders and plant some gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) and twin-flower agave (Agave geminiflora) alongside them.  Other ideas for low-growing succulents include ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, Moroccan mound, and artichoke agave.  Flowering groundcovers would also look nice like angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), and sandpaper verbena (Glandularia rigida).  I like to use damianita, trailing lantana, and penstemon for color at lower heights.
Texas sage shrub with natural shape

Attractive desert landscape with room for plants to grow

Here is a snapshot of a landscape area at the Desert Botanical Garden where plants have room to grow and are allowed to grow into their natural shape and form.

Transforming the problematic landscape shown earlier, and others like it isn’t difficult, and the results are dramatic.  What you are left with is a beautiful landscape filled with healthy plants that use less water and needs little maintenance.

Life has been awfully busy lately.  So much so, that it has affected me from doing blogging as regularly as I like to do.  So, I would like to take a little time to let you know what I have been up to this past month.

Work has seen me driving me from one corner of the Phoenix metro area to the other, meeting with clients and helping them to create beautiful outdoor spaces.  In fact, I broke my record for the most landscape consultations in a single month.  Now that the holidays are here, work has slowed down a little.

A beautiful succulent, Euphorbia trigona

A beautiful succulent, Euphorbia trigona

One thing that I enjoy about visiting new clients is that I get to see impressive specimen plants like this Euphorbia trigona that flanked the entry of the Phoenix home.

euphorbia_trigona_arizona

This is a truly beautiful succulent that lends a tropical look to the landscape.  It is very frost tender and must be protected when temperatures dip into the 30’s.  I’d say it’s worth the effort for a plant like this.

Coyote

Coyote

Encounters with wildlife happens often during my work.  However, seeing a coyote in the middle of the day is rather rare.  As I was driving home from a consultation, I saw this beautiful coyote walk across the street.  I stopped my car and it stood off to the side of road while I took a few pictures with my phone.

coyote_arizona-001

While I’ve seen a number of coyotes over the years, most often their appearance reflects the hardship of living in the desert.  However, this coyote was the healthiest one that I’ve encountered.

coyote_arizona

I think that it enjoyed the attention that I was giving it as it stood still for several seconds before walking off into the desert.

img_9442

Christmas is my favorite season of the year.   I enjoy shopping for the perfect gift, decorating the house, baking my favorite desserts, singing along to Christmas music in the car, and rejoicing in the reason for Christmas.

img_9229

Earlier this week, we filmed a video segment for our church’s upcoming Christmas Eve services.  We were asked to share the story of our daughter Ruthie’s adoption along with her cousin Sofie.  They were best friends in the orphanage when my sister and her family adopted Sofie back in 2006.  One year later, my husband and I went to China and adopted Ruthie.  So, they are not just best friends, but cousins.

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We taped the video at my sister’s house, which took over 3 hours.  The segment will probably only be 3 – 4 minutes in length, but I can hardly wait to see their story shared and hope that it will inspire others.  I will be sure to share it with all of you at that time.

I hope that you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are enjoying this holiday season.

 

 

Have you ever found yourself driving through a neighborhood past landscapes planted with the commonly planted lantana and oleander shrubs when you see something completely different that catches your attention?

A few weeks ago, I was leaving a client’s home in North Phoenix and started on my way home, when I drove past this beautiful, drought tolerant landscape.


The corner of the landscape was anchored by an ocotillo whose graceful canes added needed height to the landscape.

Palo brea trees add year round green color and yellow flowers are so set appear later in spring.

Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) adds a welcome spot of orange in late winter and into spring and will bloom again in fall.

Cacti and agave add great texture contrast with their unique shapes.  The Argentine giant cactus (Echinopsis candicans) will produce large, lily-like flowers in spring.


Several species of agave have been used throughout the landscape including Agave species americana, lophantha and victoria-reginae.  With so much variety in the color and sizes available in agaves, there is one for almost any landscape situation.
Several different cacti are tucked in here and there leading one to want to walk around and discover what else is growing in the garden.
The thin, upright succulent stems of candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica) add great texture contrast when planted next to succulents and cacti with thicker leaves/stems.

The main planting area in the center is on a slightly elevated area, which offers a glimpse of the plants located toward the back.  Landscape design that creates areas that artfully take center stage and then recede into the background as you walk through, which creates intrigue and heightens the desire to see what else is present in the garden.

Aloes, which do best in light shade, are scattered throughout the landscape, which add color in late winter into spring.  

In the background, the orange, tubular flowers Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) attracts hummingbirds all year long.  

Variegated agave americana adds great color contrast with their bi-colored leaves while Indian fig prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) adds height in the background.  


I love this unusual pathway that zig-zags through the landscape.  Golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) are used to greatest effect by grouping them in 3’s.

Large boulders finish the landscape adding mass and texture while not needing any pruning or water. 
It’s important to note that large boulders like this may need heavy equipment to place.  If you want to avoid the hassle and expense of using heavy equipment, you can place 2 medium-sized boulders next to 
each other for a similar effect.

There are several things that I enjoyed so much about this landscape.  One is how they used a large amount of different plant species without it looking ‘busy’.  Also, instead of laying out the entire landscape where you can see everything from the street, this one leads you on a path of discovery when you are treated to glimpses at what is located further in.

***********************

This past week was event filled along with some rather unexpected occurrences for me.  One was that for the first time since early January, my calendar was quite suddenly empty.  I had several landscape consultations scheduled that were cancelled at the last minute by clients and rescheduled for various reasons including a flooded house to a puppy eating a cigar.

It was rather disconcerting to go from trying to keep my head above water to having the gift of extra time on my hands, but I enjoyed it and got some gardening articles finished ahead of looming deadlines.


Last week was also a big milestone for my husband who turned 50.  We celebrated throughout the week, but one of our favorite outings was breakfast at Joe’s Farm & Grill with our granddaughter, Lily.

On a sad note, our friend, neighbor and vet passed away unexpectedly on Friday.  He had treated the furry members of our family for 18 years with love and respect.  We were also blessed to have been his neighbor for over 15 years.  

We will miss his loving care for our animals, seeing him and his wife walk their dogs in the evening and even the lemons he would leave at our door.

After hearing the shocking news of his death, I had a hard time focusing on anything else this weekend and even writing took a backseat – hence the lack of blog posts.  But, it was a blessing to be able to set work aside for few days and let the loss sink in.

My schedule is now filled up again with appointments and the desert is awash in spring color, which is a busy time in the garden. 

I hope your week is off to a good start.


A few weeks ago, I was asked by one of my editors to come up with a list of the top 10 plants that every resident of the Southwest should consider adding to their landscape.


I must admit that the task was a bit daunting at first – not because I couldn’t think of enough plants.  The problem was that my list was much larger.


I had to pare my list down and decided to focus on plants that would grow in zones 7 – 10, which cover much of the desert Southwest.  In addition, they had to be low-maintenance, native, beautiful and easy to grow.

After considering all of the criteria, I still had about 20 plants.  So, I added one other criteria of my own – how easy is it to find at your local nursery?

 
At the end, I had 10 plants that I was very happy with – but I could have easily added a lot more 😉
 
I hope you enjoy reading through this list of 10 essential plants for the desert Southwest.  

 
*I’d love to hear what plants you would include in your list of 10 favorites.
 

Do you have a list of favorite plants for your Southwestern garden?


I do.


Today, I’d like to share with you about one of my favorite shrubs, desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis).


It has beautiful, light-green foliage and purple flowers that appear off an on throughout the year, with the heaviest bloom occurring in spring.

Unlike its cousin (Ruellia brittoniana), desert ruellia does not take over the garden space.  

It needs little maintenance, and looks great with a variety of other flowering plants.

For more information on where this lovely shrub grows, how to plant it and how to use it in the landscape, check out my latest plant profile for Houzz.com

To see my other plant profiles for Houzz, click here.

June is here, which marks the official beginning of hot, dry weather throughout the southwest.

While most of us can be found indoors in the comfort of air-conditioning – your plants can be suffering from the heat and intense sunlight.

May and June can be some of the most difficult months for plants in the garden until the summer rains arrive in late June.

Need some helpful tips for your June garden?

Here is my June “to-do” list that I wrote for Houzz.com.
The back wall along my backyard is covered in yellow blossoms spring through fall.

Every year, I find myself pleasantly surprised that such this lovely, yellow-flowering shrub is native to southwestern deserts on into Mexico.

Most of the flowering plants in my garden have a long flowering period.  I tend not to waste time on plants that flower for less then 2 months.  

My yellow bells (Tecoma stans) provides me with beautiful, yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers spring through fall.  

Hummingbirds love the flowers too!

Want to learn more about this lovely shrub?  I invite you to check out my latest plant profile for Houzz.com


What is your favorite yellow-flowering plant?

Last week was a busy one for me.  I had several appointments scheduled, and then I got the ‘mother’ of all colds.  


I don’t get sick colds very often. So, that is probably why when I do get them every few years – I get a severe one.  

My constant companions the past week.
I am finally among the living after a week of fighting through all that this cold could throw at me, and I feel weak and drained – BUT, I can now walk through the house without carrying a box of tissues.  *Being able to breathe through your nose is so delightful when it has been stopped up for a week (cold medicine just doesn’t seem to work all that well for me).
 
Despite this terrible cold, I was able to make it through my appointments, although I prayed that my nose wouldn’t start dripping in front of my clients.  Whenever I started to feel weak or faint, I would come up with an excuse to sit for a minute or two by saying, “Let’s sit for a minute and see what the view of the landscape looks like from this perspective.”
 
I promise that I used a lot of hand-sanitizer before shaking hands with everyone 😉
 
Alright, enough complaining about my cold.  I am excited to show you my latest project.
 
 
Okay, I admit that it doesn’t look too exciting right now.
 
As you can see, the project is on a golf course.  This particular course is removing 50 acres of turf and planting drought-tolerant landscapes in their place in their attempt to save water.
 
The area pictured above is just one of many that I will be working on throughout the summer.
 
As part of the turf removal, the golf course will be re-designing its entire irrigation system. (It hasn’t happened yet in this area, which is why it is wet.)
 
 
Along the entire length of this area, will run a river-rock lined wash, which will help to channel stormwater.
 
I have been working on a plant palette that includes native, drought-tolerant succulents, shrubs, and groundcovers that will require minimal water once established.
 
Railroad ties, that separate homeowner properties will be removed to help the transition toward the golf course landscape visually.  To that end, I will include a few of the same plants already present in the adjoining properties to create the illusion of a seamless landscape.
 
The goal is to create a beautiful landscape area that has minimal water and maintenance requirements.  To say that I am excited about working on this project is an understatement.
 
Interestingly, my first job out of college was working as a horticulturist for a golf course.  Although I had unlimited opportunities to golf for free – I never did.  Other than indulging in an occasional round of miniature golf – I don’t play golf at all.
 
I may not play golf or completely understand the passion for the game – I have come to know the unique challenges that landscaping around golf courses entail – overspray from sprinklers, carts driving through landscape areas when they aren’t allowed, knowing what plants to use in areas that are in play, etc.
 
Next time, I will share with the plant palette of drought-tolerant natives that will be used in these areas.  Who knows?  You may be inspired to use some of these plants in your landscape!